Not just a study aid

Andrew Coates reviews David Harvey's 'A companion to Marx's Capital' Verso, 2010, pp320, £10.99

“Of course, we have all read, and all do read, Capital.” Louis Althusser’s opening words to Reading Capital (1968) were improbable to most Marxists then, and even more unlikely now.

Forty years on, in the wake of the worldwide financial crisis, anti-capitalism and Marxism have seen a modest revival, it is true. As the Communist manifesto observed, capitalism is “like a sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells”. But going through Marx’s critique of political economy ‘to the letter’ to find the bourgeoisie’s grimoire remains a minority taste. As David Harvey states, “a whole younger generation has grown up bereft of familiarity with, let alone training in, Marxist political economy”. This is not just an academic loss.

To Harvey movements that oppose capitalism need an “alternative vision”.[1] If The enigma of Capital (2010) tries to show one, A companion to Marx’s Capital is its essential partner. The book explores the factory where Enigma is manufactured. Harvey’s aim is to “get you to read a book by Karl Marx called Capital Volume I, and to read it on Marx’s own terms”. Honed by years of lectures to an American graduate audience (replete with ‘gottens’), it is of greatest interest to those whose “practical engagements” demand a “strong theoretical base”.

Left readings

There are two main left approaches to Marx’s Capital. The first, largely academic, is taken by his critics. Theorists have taken Marx’s works to pieces so thoroughly, as in the writings of Jon Elster, Barry Hindess and Paul Hirst,[2] that little remains but the concepts of forces and relations of production. From these, we get ‘post-Marxist’ theories of the total autonomy of politics, largely beyond any of the categories of Capital.

A second approach is that of a ‘return to Marx’. But it is of a very particular type. The ‘capital-logic’ school, which owes debts to the analysis of value by the early Soviet writer, II Rubin, is influential on the non-academic left. One theorist, John Holloway (Change the world without taking power, 2005), has his own reading of Marx. He maps the theory of commodity fetishism onto politics and states (‘form process’). The realm of “fetishised social relations” enwrap us in capital’s power to the extent that opposition has to begin (as the book does) by one big “scream” against the entire system. Anything less ends up propping up capitalism.

Harvey therefore does not write in a vacuum. Companion is not just an invitation to read Marx. He is obliged to defend some basic Marxist positions against the radical critics. The labour theory of value is justified as a necessary “material base” of production. Harvey states (repeating some classical views): “We need the concept of value as socially necessary labour-time” to stop us imagining that the economy of the market “arrives magically”, “facilitated by the magic of the money”.

Against analytical Marxists, who criticise Marx’s ‘flirtation’ with Hegelian terms, he is less forthright. There is no widespread use of Hegelian language or reliance on Marx’s (metaphorical) concept of the ‘negation of the negation’. While Harvey admires Marx’s ‘dialectical’ method, this largely refers to their ability to capture social development ‘in motion’, within an interlinked “totality”. Dialectics, he observes in the first chapters, enabled Marx to go beyond the surface or “appearance” of capitalism to discover its inner workings. We get a sense of the way the labour process is dynamically organised, how the circuits of capital are interrelated, how “space and time get set up and understood”, how machinery is deployed and the contradictions of commodity production develop. That lets us see the major contours of the modern capitalist world.

But this (loose) dialectics is only a tool. As for the analytical theorists, it is the capacity of Capital to offer accurate diagnoses of how capitalism operates that matters, not, as Harvey states in his concluding chapter, the “dance of dialectic”.

The ‘autonomist’ reading of Marx and its ‘great refusal’ of capital’s capacity to abstract is also addressed. Labour and technology are part of ‘metabolic’ processes bonded to nature. By their intrinsic character they imply hard effort. A demand for autonomous free play is not the pivotal point from where capital can be challenged.

Workers’ resistance takes a different form. It is directly related to conditions inside work. Class struggle may (by preventing destitution and preventing its tendency to throttle demand) help capital reach a better equilibrium. But such conflicts (for example, over the length of the working day) “can go beyond trade union consciousness and morph into more revolutionary demands”. Left unresolved, however, is exactly how class struggle can be related to politics, and can avoid being absorbed or quashed by the state and the bourgeoisie.

Piloting a voyage

In the journey through Marx’s work there can be few better pilots than Harvey. He unravels the most difficult chapters of Capital, on commodities, on the labour theory of value, to expose with clarity the process of surplus value extraction.

There is a constant effort to retain a critical awareness. So, in discussing the origins of money, Harvey casts doubt on Marx’s own historical beliefs (that they emerged directly from commodity exchange). Companion equally makes good use of modern theory to indicate the continuing importance of Marx’s fertile suggestions. Harvey claims (perhaps optimistically), for example, that Foucault’s works on ‘Panoptic’ labour discipline are compatible with Marx’s description of the regimenting of wage-labour in the first factories. The book equally sparkles with Marx’s literary allusions (from Balzac to Shakespeare), historical illustrations (such as the British 19th century Factory Acts and Chartism), philosophical debts (Hegel), political and ideological context (utopian socialism, Fourier, Proudhon, Owen, Cabet, Saint-Simon). Harvey gives due attention to the political economists Marx critiqued - Adam Smith, above all, though also Ricardo, Malthus and John Stuart Mill, whose writings are important for anyone wishing to go further into what Marx meant.

Readers of Companion (and Enigma) should be aware of the context. A radical geographer and critic of postmodernism, Harvey has become increasingly concerned to link his theoretical work to political conclusions. This appears throughout Companion. One central theme is how the crises of capitalism work out. While he adopts a multi-causal approach on this (considering underconsumption as well as the decline in profit rates), a central problem for capital is “overaccumulation” (a theme of the Communist manifesto). In Capital’s pages there are only indications of this problem, as the work stretched into further volumes (capital is reproduced generally though recurrent devaluations and crises of disproportionality continually upset the system). The important point is that overaccumulation means a lack of internal effective demand for products, and a reserve of idle capital. Rosa Luxemburg saw a resolution external to the existing circuits of capital reproduction. This lay in “the existence of some latent and mobilised demand outside the capitalist system”. Its use implied “the continuation of primitive accumulation through imperialist imposition”.

Harvey extends this insight into even wider economic and political arenas. Whether every feature of classical pre-great war imperialism defines the ‘highest stage’ of capitalism or not, these mechanisms, Harvey argues, still operate. He asserts that modern business continues to resolve its difficulties through seeking external outlets for its surplus goods and capital. It seeks to “solve its capital-surplus problem through geographical and temporal displacements”. This implies both a continuation of imperialism (through capital export), and the internal colonialisation of formerly non-market social institutions.

The process we call ‘globalisation’ is thus more unsettling than a networked world market, ‘immaterial’ (technological) production or other aspects of the transnational economic and political flows described in Toni Negri’s and Michael Hardt’s Empire (2000) and Multitude (2004). Classical colonialisation has been succeeded by endless economic and political shocks. Repressive political or directly military means are still used to open up new markets and dispose of people.

In New imperialism (2005) Harvey described the battering down of barriers to capital through the “enclosure of the commons”. Naturally he develops - from and beyond Marx - a host of forms relating to how the contradictions of capitalism develop and are (in phases) resolved, not to mention the spiralling complexities of the different “limits and barriers” of capital. But this element of his theory, extending the life of primitive accumulation to contemporary capitalism, is probably the most politically significant. It is the basis for both oppression and resistance. Or, as Companion indicates, “political struggles against accumulation by dispossession” are “just as important as more traditional proletarian movements”. Nor are the western heartlands unaffected: in Baltimore people are losing their homes because of the subprime mortgage crisis - “a vicious class war of accumulation by dispossession”. In these conditions, political strategies are needed “around the notion of class war”.[3]

Today, while we see capital turning inwards to cannibalise formerly publicly owned and administered assets, the process is, Harvey has argued, helped by political means. A brief history of neoliberalism (2005) describes a similar process of dispossession at work. “The reversion of common property rights won through years of hard class struggle (the right to a state pension, to welfare, to national healthcare) to the private domain has been one of the most egregious of all policies of dispossession pursued in the name of neoliberal orthodoxy.” Neoliberal politics - Thatcher in Britain, Reagan in America - were about “the restoration or reconstitution of naked class power, locally as well as transnationally, but most particularly in the main financial centres of global capitalism.” Capital is turning in on itself, as ‘unproductive’ state functions are turned over to private contractors for private profit (though in Marxist terms this creates a conceptual difficulty - are they still ‘unproductive’ when all the surplus value comes from diverted taxation?).

We might also note that the neoliberals’ success in creating a permanent ‘reserve army of labour’ (the out-of-work or causally employed) is now accompanied by coercive dispossession of existing welfare rights, and forced labour (Workfare) to provide a flexible pool of employees and push down wages. This reminds us that primitive accumulation was accompanied by forceful measures to make those without property toil.

Class struggle

Companion is, then, not just a study aid. It has political ambitions. To illustrate how Marxist politics could operate Harvey focuses on Capital’s account of struggles over the working day. He updates this discussion of the tendency of employers to extend as far as possible the working day with descriptions of conditions in plants producing Wal-Mart goods today, and the loss of “class power” to alter them. But we are not clear - as we indicated in discussing autonomist thinkers - how far sufficient class power, if it reappeared, could be exerted to shape the legal framework of society or the state’s internal make-up.

Marx apparently never fixed an “equilibrium point” for class struggle that could tell us how far we can proceed in this direction. In which case Capital is a political route-map which indicates clearly the starting point (class struggle), but fails to signpost most of the paths (against or through the apparatus of the public power) through which the working class has to travel.

One example makes this difficulty plain. Harvey asserts that capitalist exploitation cannot be fought by appeals to human rights or “rights talk” generally. Exploitation and dispossession are acts of class power, which can only be met with class action. Yet when he discusses the struggle over the length of the working day and wages he cites accepted living standards as socially established ‘givens’ capitalists have eventually to accept. They evolve, as a wider, more prosperous standard of life is accepted as the absolute minimum.

Can we not see that ‘human rights’ are part of the independent ‘moral economy’ of the masses, which is the bedrock of movements for better conditions? If neoliberalism is based on markets and the norm of legal equality, what is there to prevent people from asserting their own moral universe in opposition? Marx may have been right to observe how the existing notion of rights corresponded to the apparent equity of (normal) exchanges in a capitalist society, while ignoring the underlying inequalities behind them. But the system cannot impose itself over all what Harvey calls our “species-being”. From that source come new demands that reach beyond existing society. ‘I know my rights’ may be a more intelligible starting point than Jon Holloway’s scream.

Marx[4] and, influentially, Engels believed in forming mass working class parties. The classical Second International perspective is that the cause of labour proceeds by steady democratic expression. Is this fundamentally flawed by the existence of capitalist states ‘internally related’ to the process of accumulation? Is the state largely (as in Capital) concerned with maintaining certain essential functions of capitalism (law, money, communications and so on)? Are successful workers’ demands for a more active role (welfare, education, pensions, health) just doomed to make capitalism more stable? Are these ‘gains’ or half-victories - half-self-interested concessions that may be lost?

Clearly the main British political leaderships think that neoliberalism has won for the foreseeable future. In which case how and at what point will more radical class struggle be able to go beyond such a framework? Harvey explores in other writings the alliances beyond labour this may require, but more significant may be the way in which parties can be constructed.

This is a good point on which to conclude. A companion to Capital is more than excellent company. It makes us consider that it is not identities - national, religious or cultural - that primarily define how we live. It is capitalism. Its ever-present form is crystallised in money as a “radical leveller”. This “indicates a certain democracy of money, an egalitarianism in it; a dollar in my pocket has the same value as one in yours”. But revenues are not democratically distributed. Capital stands against labour; rents and surplus are extracted from the workers. Thus the “concept of class, in all its ambiguous glory, is indispensable to both theory and action”.

I want more money, I want my rights!


  1. See his political conclusions on this at davidharvey.org/2009/12/organizing-for-the-anti-capitalist-transition
  2. T Cutler, B Hindess, A Hussain, P Hirst Marx’s Capital and capitalism today London 1978; J Elster Making sense of Marx Cambridge 1985.
  3. For discussion on these views see ‘Symposium on David Harvey’s ‘The new imperialism’, Historical Materialism Vol 14, No4, 2006.
  4. See J Elster Making sense of Marx Cambridge 1985.